Exhaustion in Escapism. Or, The Day Hollywood Broke Me

While the human race continues to ponder seemingly unanswerable questions — “where do we come from?” and “is Rob Schneider the devil incarnate?” come to mind — some subjects are simply not open for public debate. It has been well established that the earth is round, George Foreman’s grills have innovated the way fat can be drained from meat, every movie Harrison Ford has appeared in for the last 15 years has completely sucked, and Hollywood productions aren’t great on that whole historical accuracy thing. A spate of truth-stretchers I’ve recently watched has made that last point something of a sore spot.

I enjoyed John Hillcoat’s Lawless, inspired by real-life bootleggers the Bondurant Brothers, but was disappointed to learn the law enforcer who brought them down (played by Guy Pearce) was not actually a snarling city slicker with oily parted hair and no eyebrows.

Last week I tuned into Ridley Scott’s ripping swords ‘n’ sandals romp Gladiator (2000). After some post-movie reading I discovered the evil Emperor Commodus (played with nasal-blazing perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) was actually highly regarded, ruled for 13 years rather than a few months and didn’t get killed in a spectacular arena-set last hurrah. He was — depending on which account you believe — a victim of chickenpox, murdered while taking a bath or fatally depressed by a fortune teller’s prediction that he was one day going to be part of a Russell Crowe movie.

But the biggest blow was dealt by Argo, the much-hyped new film from Ben “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck” Affleck.  The dramatic real-life story of a CIA agent named Tony Mendez who covertly brings home a bunch of Americans held hostage in Iran by getting them to pretend they are making a dodgy science fiction movie is certainly compelling, particularly the final act in which the team (spoiler alert) make their way to the airport and use their nous to navigate a climactic series of gruelling obstacles, each more intense than the last. The film ends with a collective wiping of the brow after the plane finally launches into the air while gun-toting Iranians chase it down the runway in a jeep.

Except none of it happened. The last third of the movie is 100% ballyhoo. Yes, the Americans went to the airport, but in the words of Mendez himself their plan went “smooth as silk”.

Lies. Damned lies. Relishing in balderdash may be a sine qua non of the cinematic arts, but something in the broth, I felt, had started to taste odious.

We all know movies “based” on history need to embellish facts to make things interesting, but where does one draw the line? Don’t filmmakers have some kind of responsibility to respect reality when representing things that actually happened?

These questions were getting a bit too much, and I felt my appreciation of cinema beginning to crumble under the weight of such rampant fact fudging. I want to see The Sessions, director Ben Lewin’s “autobiographical” film about a paralysed man (played by John “hello Academy” Hawkes) who is confined to an iron lung and enlists the help of a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity. But I haven’t been able to muster the courage to see it. I’m too afraid it will end, Argo style, with some outrageous embellishment — a scene where Hawks leaps to his feet, walks down the aisle and closes the film by saying something like “true love makes life worth living after all.”

In a strange twist of fate, the one recent Hollywood production I did think was pretty realistic was the Scientology “inspired” film The Master. But when I suggested as much to the film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson, he reacted not with a gracious “thank you” but in a manner that suggested he’d just caught me doing something unquestionably uncouth, like stealing meds from his grandmother or recommending Any Questions for Ben?

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  1. Some good points, but why the desperate need to be funny? Same piece could have taken up half the space without the try-hard quips.

    by Bob Sanders on Nov 21, 2012 at 10:03 am

  2. Commodus is most certainly lumped into the category of “bad emperors” along with Caligula, Nero, Domitian, etc. i.e. from the source traditions. Modern opinions and revisions will certainly vary; but modern classical historians are not usually concerned in any way with determining placement of emperors along a good/bad continuum.

    by scot mcphee on Nov 21, 2012 at 10:57 pm

  3. It’s a tricky business fitting a life, or a bit of history, into a satisfying film structure. Life doesn’t unfold in three acts, sadly. Lordy, the projects I’ve got in my third drawer! Have you seen a ‘based on real events’ movie that you think didn’t tell porkies, Luke? Post ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Nicholas and Alexandria’ I mean. I’m curious.

    by Crispy on Nov 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm

  4. I found the rant-iness and the sarcasm highly amusing, myself, but I do have to agree with Crispy. Stories are a great way to engage people with ideas and emotions, and many would say they can express “higher truths”, but they are not a good way to get the facts straight (there’s this thing called the Narrative Fallacy). Documentaries are better for facts, but the most important thing is just to always by discerning and check this stuff for yourself. No-one should be taking what any part of the media throws at them on faith.

    by moonkid on Nov 23, 2012 at 4:14 pm

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